The Saskatchewan River Basin drains an area of some 400,000km² throughout the central provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, as well as small areas of British Columbia and Montana. It includes an enormous variety of terrain, from the high glacial alpine in its Rocky Mountain headwaters, through foothills, boreal forests, shieldlands, marshes, and the Prairies, before entering Lake Winnipeg via the largest inland delta in North America, and thence ultimately to Hudson Bay. Throughout this region, it provides a vital resource for settlements of all sizes, from major cities to villages, for the agriculture and industry on which they depend, and for an associated abundance of biodiversity.
This major river system has experienced drought and flooding countless times in the past, but the potential effects of climate change within its basin now present a new spectrum of extreme implications, not only for the security of water resources and infrastructure, and consequently for the sustainability of these communities themselves, but also much further afield in Canada and the northern USA.
There is therefore a pressing need for advances to be made in our ability to predict regional hydrological responses to possible climate scenarios, in order to quantify the nature and magnitude of these effects, and to seek strategies for their mitigation. Studies have progressed over several decades at a number of long-term experimental sites throughout the region, but there is much still to be learnt about how the dynamics of the basin as a whole are likely to react to the type and scale of climate change currently envisaged. Improvements must be made in the performance and integration of a range of atmospheric and hydrologic models operating at different spatial and temporal resolutions, and in the assimilation of remotely-sensed data, thereby enabling development of the best possible forecasts on which to base plans for the future.
The need for progress of this type implies an opportunity for a major new study of continental scale, which will integrate academic institutions and government research agencies with a wide variety of interests and expertise, and thereby maximise the intellectual synergy brought to bear on the solution of these significant challenges. Such a project would be an excellent candidate to become a GEWEX Regional Hydroclimate Project (RHP).
GEWEX - the Global Energy and Water cycle Experiment - is a major international project comprising integrated research, earth observation, and associated scientific activities, which aims to improve predictive methods for global and regional climate change. It is the core vehicle for research under the auspices of the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP). The last Canadian contribution to this key movement was the Mackenzie GEWEX Study (MAGS), which was widely regarded both nationally and internationally as an extremely successful project. Beyond generating high-quality scientific outputs, it also played a major role in integrating research efforts and forging stronger links between scientists working in the field, both nationally and around the world. With there currently being no comparable program active in North America, a Saskatchewan River Basin study would both fill a yawning gap in the coverage of, and renew Canadian involvement in, this key global initiative.
Such a project would be a major undertaking, and will depend on the support of a broad assemblage of institutions, individuals, interests and skills. To explore the potential for establishing a study of this scale, the University of Saskatoon and Environment Canada's National Hydrology Research Centre held a preliminary workshop in Saskatoon on Wednesday 30th March, 2011.
The workshop had the following aims:
The agenda included presentations by invited speakers on the needs and benefits of RHPs, and on research in the Saskatchewan River Basin, both current and proposed. The majority of the workshop was be devoted to discussions related to ideas which might be built into a formal plan for an RHP.